As Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto watched his players trudge to their Yankee Stadium dugout following Giancarlo Stanton’s mammoth two-run, walk-off home run Wednesday night, he sensed something in his team that he hadn’t felt all year: defeat.
“For the first time in half a season, you saw a team that was down a little bit as they walked off the field,” Dipoto said of a 7-5 loss in which the Mariners blew a 5-0 fifth-inning lead. “Any other game we’ve lost, they just bounce back the next day. They’re such a resilient group. But to lose a game you led 5-0, that’s painful.”
Stanton’s dagger came right in the middle of a 10-game stretch against American League powers Boston and New York that many view as a litmus test for Seattle.
Sure, the Mariners thrived in the wake of Robinson Cano’s 80-game suspension after he tested positive for a banned substance on May 15, winning 23 of their first 31 games without their star second baseman, and they appear good enough to end the longest playoff drought in the four North American sports leagues at 16 years.
But is a team searching for its first championship in the 42-year history of the franchise really good enough to challenge not only the Yankees and Red Sox, but also the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians for AL supremacy?
If so, they are not very convincing.
Seattle’s funk Wednesday night seemed to carry over to Thursday, when ace James Paxton gave up two-run homers to Aaron Judge and Miguel Andujar in the first inning of an eventual 4-3 loss.
Then, Friday night at Fenway Park, the Mariners were clobbered by the Red Sox 14-10 despite Nelson Cruz’s four-hit, seven-RBI night. Soft-throwing left-hander Wade LeBlanc was rocked for six runs and 11 hits in 4 2/3 innings. A usually stout bullpen was torched for eight runs and nine hits in 3 1/3 innings.
After starting the 10-game stretch by splitting four games against Boston at home, Seattle was swept in New York. The Mariners’ season-high losing streak reached five Friday night, and their lead over the Angels in the wild-card race was trimmed to five games. They were 2-6 against the AL East powers entering Saturday night’s game.
“At the end of the day, you’re going to go through four- and five-game win streaks, and occasionally you’re going to lose five in row,” Dipoto said. “The season has a funny way of normalizing, and to this point, we’ve kept up with the best teams in the league.
“While we’re flawed, we still think we’re a pretty good club, and we do have a chance to hang in this thing. The character of the team, the job they’ve done in the clubhouse from Scott [Servais, Seattle manager] down, has been phenomenal.”
That character was put to the test when Cano, who had an .825 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, four homers and 23 RBIs in 39 games, was banished.
The Mariners were 23-17 when Cano was suspended. After a June 16 win over Boston, they were 46-25, eight games ahead of the Angels.
Seattle’s response to Cano’s suspension was similar to that of the Angels when they lost ace Garrett Richards to a season-ending knee injury on Aug. 20, 2014.
The Angels had a half-game lead over Oakland when Richards, who was on his way to Cy Young Award consideration with a 13-4 record and 2.61 ERA, went down.
Jered Weaver and Matt Shoemaker held the rotation together, a Huston Street-led bullpen held firm, and the offense caught fire, averaging 8.6 runs during a 10-game September winning streak. The Angels went 21-7 after Richards’ injury, built a double-digit lead and clinched the division on Sept. 17.
“Having been a part of both of those emotionally, to watch guys step up and jell together when there is one of two ways they can go … it’s kind of remarkable,” said Dipoto, the Angels GM from 2012 to the middle of 2015.
“You see guys bring the energy every night, and that’s what this group did. They stepped up when they could have gone the other way, frankly.”
Leadoff hitter Dee Gordon was moved from center field to second base. Dipoto, one of baseball’s most aggressive GMs, used a chunk of the savings from Cano’s $24-million salary — pay he must forfeit for his suspension — to acquire outfielder Denard Span and former All-Star closer Alex Colome from Tampa Bay on May 25.
A rotation featuring the homegrown Paxton and Felix Hernandez, 2017 acquisitions Marco Gonzalez and Mike Leake, and LeBlanc, who was released by the Yankees in spring training, remained solid.
Flame-throwing closer Edwin Diaz, with a 1.74 ERA and 27 saves in 30 opportunities entering Saturday, Colome and left-hander James Pazos anchor a bullpen that is the primary reason the Mariners are 23-11 in one-run games.
A lineup revamped by Dipoto’s numerous trades since taking over at the end of 2015 features speed and on-base ability up top (Gordon, Jean Segura), power in the middle (Cruz, Mitch Haniger, Ryon Healy, Kyle Seager) and clutch hitting throughout.
The Mariners entered Saturday ranked eighth in the AL in runs (335), fifth in OPS (.745), fourth in stolen bases (47) and first in sacrifice hits (20). They don’t walk or strike out much; they rank 13th in both categories.
“We’re not reliant on the three-run homer to win, so a lot of times, we manufacture a run with sacrifice bunts, stolen bases and sacrifice flies,” Dipoto said. “We envisioned playing almost like a 1980s National League-type team, with power concentrated in the middle, and contact and speed throughout.
“Along the way, our outfield defense got a lot better, and our infield defense is sneaky good. Our starting pitchers throw strikes and keep us in games for five or six innings, and we brought in a bullpen that can finish it off.”
The Mariners — at least until the middle of this last week — were also playing with a joie de vivre that is so evident that Dipoto said it “looks like they’re playing a College World Series game every night.”
It starts with Servais, who, despite his stoic demeanor, “brings energy every day,” Dipoto said. “He’s very much into team-first, we’re-all-in-this together.” The youthful exuberance of Healy, 26, and the enthusiasm of Gordon have rubbed off on the team.
“Those two additions were phenomenal in what they did for the overall team energy level,” Dipoto said.
The Mariners have not reached the playoffs since 2001, when their 116-win team lost to the Yankees in the AL Championship Series, a drought that is rarely discussed in their clubhouse.